The uncomfortable truth about post-Soviet comfort foods

(First published at https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/darya-malyutina/the-uncomfortable-truth-about-post-soviet-comfort-foods)

 

What nourishes us also destroys us: this old saying holds true not only for food, but also politics.

Sometime ago, after a fair amount of Friday night pub drinking with Ukrainian friends in London, I end up at their place for a 3am snack. They pull out a jar of tushonka, a post-war food staple made of canned stewed meat from military supplies shipped to the Soviet Union by the US. How did this fatty grub with a shelf life that makes it sound more like a post-apocalyptic survival food than a delicacy end up in London? As it turns out, it’s homemade: my friend’s parents sent it from Ukraine in one of those delivery vans that shuttle across Europe, transporting goods and parcels every week, thus sustaining a dense network of cross-border ties. In a city that has hundreds of restaurants, cafes, pubs and food stalls; where all sorts of meat are sold, from humble pork to exotic crocodile; where steaks are cooked every minute, to any degree of perfection, from blue to well done – in this city, a glass jar of processed meat with a thick layer of lard which has travelled over 1,000 miles to connect a village near Ivano-Frankivsk in west Ukraine with a flat near King’s Cross, seems to have a much greater symbolic than nutritional value.

It’s comfort food, and it tastes good at 3am after a few pints. But wouldn’t, say, a kebab be tastier? Doesn’t tushonka probably contain too much cholesterol? Isn’t it reminiscent of the dismal living conditions during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 1990s? Isn’t it synonymous with the precarious state in which so many citizens of the former Soviet Union have been living to date? And are food choices also political choices?

There’s another side of this, though, a darker one. In April 2018, The Sun published an article mentioning that the former Russian spy Sergey Skripal may have been poisoned in Salisbury by buckwheat – one of the common porridges in diets of many countries of the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe – which was presumably brought from Moscow by an unnamed woman. While the article may or may not have been a hoax, the choice of buckwheat is symbolic. A cheap Soviet and then Russian culinary staple, ubiquitous “back home” and having a nostalgic value for many migrants, buckwheat was now presented as a carrier of a toxic agent and a potential transnational murder weapon.

Seemingly comforting in its nostalgic and sentimental value, some food from “back then” or “back home” can, in fact, turn out to be not so good for you. Ironically, comfort food can turn out to be discomfort food if one takes a closer look at it. They might seem to be the foods of your own choosing, but the preference for them is often conditioned by a lack of alternatives. Discomfort politics can be seen in a similar way – as something that is risk-related and very likely to make your life miserable, while feeling familiar and even desirable due the lack of other options.

Discomfort food

The assumption that a liking for foodstuffs from “back home” may be connected with more than sustaining a cross-border relationship with your loving family has become more prominent recently. In a short video filmed by German Russian-language channel RTVD in a supermarket in Marzahn – a Berlin outskirt described by the channel as the city’s “most “Russian” locality” – a number of Russian-speaking migrants speak to camera about supporting Vladimir Putin at Russia’s 2018 presidential elections. They talk about lack of competition from other candidates and vaguely praise Putin’s achievements as president. One of the women mentions that she has relatives living in Russia, where “life is hard, of course”, and that she supports them “as much as she can”. Most of the interviewees have been living in Berlin since the early 2000s.

It is telling that of all places the Berlin migrants were chosen to be filmed by the TV channel, they are filmed at a supermarket catering to the city’s Russian-speaking population. This setting and the interviews point at the speakers’ cross-border connections with their home country, including political allegiances, personal ties and culinary habits. Post-election data suggests that the number of pro-Putin votes amongst Russian migrants in Germany has nearly tripled since the previous presidential election. Perhaps migrants’ eating habits are feeding into their political preferences and voting behaviour?

“Is there a correlation between migrants being vatniks [an internet meme and slur defining its subject as uncritically supportive of the Russian regime] and Russian grocery stores?” the friend who sent me this video from Marzahn asks half-rhetorically. “I’ve only had one colleague who shopped in a Russian shop, and she was fiercely pro-Putin.”

Surely many of us have known someone at some point who was conservative in their food tastes, and would stubbornly prefer buying groceries in “their” “ethnic” shops to shopping in any other place. On the other hand, connections between food choices and politics can be imposed on migrants by others even when this is not the case: I heard a story about a woman shopping in Berlin’s Mix Markt, where a cashier, upon seeing a lump of meat in her grocery cart, commented on it: “Good for you, you can eat meat. And my relatives in Crimea are starving because of the Russians!”

When people who have moved from former USSR to the west keep shopping in shops like Mix Markt, what does this actually mean? What do their food choices stand for? Are such people automatically more likely to have more conservative political views? Anecdotal evidence of migrants’ adherence to comfort foods may have different interpretations, some of which arise when looking at it in connection with individually and socially uncomfortable experiences.

Some researchers outline four types of comfort food: nostalgic foods, indulgence foods, convenience foods, and physical comfort foods – and assert that “new foods” cannot relieve distress since they tend to evoke feelings of anxiety. The sociological literature on migration suggests that comfort foods can be a way of coping with the stress brought about by the move to a different country. Some marketing studies, on the other hand, demonstrate the “comfort food fallacy effect”, indicating that people are less likely to choose familiar food during times of upheaval and change.

Dishing it out

When we talk about food, we don’t only think about it as nourishing, comforting, abundant, sustaining or even tasty. Food and images of food consumption are also connected to bleak outcomes for societies, individuals and the environment. The high intake of saturated fats, sugar, and complex carbohydrates, together with low consumption of lean meats, fruits, and vegetables are a cause for concern in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and are related to high cardiovascular heart disease-related mortality.

Images of food-related practices in relation to contemporary Russian politics are often rather unattractive, too. Bans of western food imports along with the dystopian gesture of bulldozing sanctioned food in 2015, were portrayed by Russian media in the last few years, purportedly, as a way of responding to western sanctions for its military invasion into Ukraine, but actually hitting its own population hardest. Food intake can look very ugly and dehumanising, at some instances: consider eating pancakes from a shovel (this was the way this traditional Maslenitsa holiday food was served to Russians during a public celebration a few years ago). Finally, free and discounted food offered at polling stations across the country, farmers’ markets and food festivals, or food coupons given out to voting students have been amongst a variety of tools used to increase voter turnout during the 2018 presidential elections that were accompanied by reports of forced voting and ballot stuffing, and a general lack of suspense.

Take, for example, the overly decorated layered salads served during holiday celebrations in the late Soviet Union and contemporary Russia – elaborate combinations of ingredients, painstakingly put together, and drenched in mayonnaise. The weird opulence of urban Russian comfort foods certainly dates back to the Soviet times when individuals tried to apply their creativity to making something interesting based on a very limited choice of ingredients (and often combined with general ignorance about healthy diet). What seemed “luxurious” in the era of shortages is now considered by many to be a culinary monstrosity – an artifact of “sovok” that only a path-dependent, dull and unreflexive Homo Sovieticus could possibly enjoy putting on their table.

This political and cultural symbolism of (post-)socialist cuisine is the subject of the web community mayonesa.nax, whose members collect and share cringeworthy recipes from all over the Russian-language internet. The very title of the community (which can be roughly translated as “Fuck Mayonnaise”) refers to a distinct meme. A staple of Soviet and contemporary Russian cuisine and a necessary ingredient of festive salads, mayonnaise is a product of historical significance, which is connected not only to individual tastes, but politics too – the planned economy, food shortages and poor nutrition. An industrial state-produced sauce in the Soviet Union, mayonnaise is remembered as something that one could not buy but only “get”; as a product that was used to diversify the taste of dishes prepared with an extremely limited set of ingredients, and to conceal the poor quality of food; yet also as something that many former Soviet citizens, even those living abroad, still refer to in a very nostalgic, albeit somewhat ironic, way.

The people who post to mayonesa.nax tackle issues from overly complicated preparation processes, overcooking, wasting quality ingredients and, yes, baking mayonnaise, to the excessive and vulgar use of diminutives while talking about foodstuffs. The spirit of this vibrant discussion community is almost Bourdieuvian. Here, the participants draw connections between eating habits, cultural and economic capital. Critique is often directed against “the taste of necessity” represented by lumping together crude, heavy, economical foods (such as pasta and potatoes). On the other hand, participants criticise aspirations for the “taste of liberty”, the aim for good presentation and elaborate serving, together with the use of exotic/expensive products such as seafood or high quality cheese (often overcooked, or mixed in strange combinations and proportions). For example, the commentators can’t help but “feel sorry for the king prawns”, when the latter are overboiled, mixed with half a dozen other ingredients, and drowned in mayo, resulting in an oddly shaped and decorated salad.

Let them eat cake?

So, what about immigrants from the former Soviet Union who now live in Europe? Why would they stick to food from their previous life when so much is available? I’ve been asking myself this question since the onset of my own academic career, when I was studying for a PhD in London.

The city strikes me with its culinary multivocality. Shortly after arrival, I marvel at the choice at Waitrose at Brunswick Square in Bloomsbury, lost among the numerous types of potatoes, upon discovering that actually more than one type exists. Chinatown is additive with its small restaurants (“If the staff is rude and doesn’t speak good English, then it’s proper Chinese,” I’m told), and grocery shops selling unfamiliar fruit and veg and spicy sauces. Food markets enthral me: from the overpriced but beautiful Borough Market to my local Leather Lane in Holborn, where a variety of street food stalls open at lunchtime on weekdays, offering lamb kebabs and prawn katsu sandwiches, pork bulgogi and jerk chicken, jambalaya and bun salads. There’s a number of east European and Russian shops in the city, of course; I rarely go there, and I do so out of curiosity rather than nostalgia, or when I need ingredients for a thematic dish for some party or gathering. I’ve hated pelmeni, or dumplings, since childhood, I think, so why would I buy them now?

One of my Russian acquaintances has an affair with her phlegmatic Belarusian neighbour. She often complains that he is too busy, and that it’s difficult to agree on a time to meet up with him. One day, she calls me, proudly announcing that the object of her advances has promised to visit her tonight, provided that she cooks a “Russian dinner” for him. “I’m thinking mashed potatoes and sausages. How do you cook mashed potatoes, by the way?” I drop by her place the next day. Apparently, everything went smoothly. She offers me some leftovers from yesterday’s feast: a couple of frankfurters, some mash and defrosted green peas – all microwaved. “Hmm, looks like a dish from a Soviet canteen,” I say. “It does. Cool, isn’t it?” I mumble something affirmative.

Affinity towards Russian, or late Soviet, comfort foods that migrants exhibit seems to be ubiquitous. One London culinary duo, Russian Revels, seeks to performatively present Russian (or, rather, Soviet) food as something fun and nostalgic. While these preferences appear to be shaped by their childhood memories rather than politics, their website features a fair share of mayo-drenched salads described as “adored and treasured by the great ex-USSR masses”, and waxes lyrical about Soviet-era meat-deficient frankfurters. Sometimes, they refer to contemporary politics in a questionable manner: in a post from the end of January 2014, around the time of the escalating violence during Ukraine’s Euromaidan and first deaths of the protesters in Kyiv, the culinary website features a recipe for “cutlets a la Kiev”, in a weird homage to events whose participants are described as “seemingly so removed from the joys of a full belly”.

One man’s meat is another man’s poison – and migrants who take part in opposition rallies in their host countries and criticise Putin on their Facebook pages also use food as a political instrument and social glue. Mulled wine and pancakes with jam were offered during an opposition rally that took place in front of the Russian embassy in London on 18 March and was attended by Russian, Ukrainian and Syrian migrants. While certainly comforting, these foodstuffs hardly seem to be connected with post-Soviet nostalgia. The food service was apparently organised by Evgeny Chichvarkin, a Russian entrepreneur who fled to London in 2009 and who has been campaigning against Putin from abroad for years; a wine shop owner, Chichvarkin also opened a restaurant in Mayfair in April 2018.

Political transnationalism, specifically migrant involvement in home country politics across borders, may include a variety of practices. Democratic ideas do not necessarily underlie them – just as comfort foods are not necessarily a source of a comforting experience, but may well be used to create an impression of attractiveness of dubious or potentially harmful activities and ideas. However, neither food nor politics really have to have a special link with childhood, or one’s country of origin, to make one feel (un)comfortable. Migrants, particularly those inhabiting big multicultural cities, while having the options to stick with familiar communities and ideas, have a chance to engage with new and diverse culinary and political cultures. Escaping from the oppressive grip of discomfort foods and politics of home country may not automatically lead to adoption of a more democratic worldview, but it may well be a start of a healthy habit.

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New paper: Сложности исследований Украины в контексте Евромайдана и российско-украинской войны

В этой статье рассматриваются некоторые сложности, с которыми сталкиваются исследователи связанных с Украиной тем в контексте Евромайдана, аннексии Крыма Россией и вооруженного конфликта на востоке Украины. Во-первых, я анализирую соображения «ненанесения вреда» субъектам исследования и избегания возможных рисков для самих исследователей. Во-вторых, я обращаюсь к ограничительному влиянию конфликта на процессы написания текстов учеными. В-третьих, я рассматриваю тему напряженности и разрыва отношений в исследовательских сообществах, которые могут повлиять на процессы совместного производства знания. Основываясь на серии интервью с исследователями Украины, эта статья представляет собой попытку анализа непростых моментов в деятельности ученых в политически чувствительных ситуациях.

 

This paper addresses some of the challenges that Euromaidan, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the armed conflict in the East of Ukraine present to the work of researchers who study Ukraine-related issues. Firstly, I explore the considerations of ‘doing no harm’ to the research subjects and avoiding the possible hazards to the researcher themselves. Secondly, I look at the conflict’s limiting impact on scholarly writing. Thirdly, I look at potential tensions and splits within research communities that might affect the processes of collaborative production of knowledge. Based upon a series of interviews with scholars of Ukraine, this paper seeks to analyse some of the difficulties facing academics in politically sensitive situations.

 

This paper can be accessed here.

New paper: Russian Journalists in Ukraine: Caught in Limbo?

Since the 2004 Orange Revolution, Ukrainian media have provided a number of Russian journalists an alternative place to continue their career, whether they were looking for a comparatively free and pluralistic media space, a new job, or safety. The number of Russian media professionals in Ukraine increased in the subsequent years. Euromaidan and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, followed by Russia’s military intervention in Donbas, have contributed to decisions to move or extend their stay in Ukraine. However, these events have also complicated the position of Russian journalists in Ukraine.This paper seeks to explore the challenges connected with being a Russian journalist and working in Ukraine-based media during Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine. This population of migrant media workers has arrived from an aggressor country, where mainstream media have been producing manipulative anti-Ukrainian discourse. They are diverse in terms of social backgrounds and migration histories, but mostly are qualified and experienced professionals. They do not form a tightly knit migrant community, and do not work for media outlets targeting such a community. This article addresses the experiences of a number of these media personalities, drawing upon a series of interviews conducted in late 2015, and open source materials. I argue that the Maidan, the annexation of Crimea, and the ongoing conflict have had a significant impact on Russian migrant journalists in Ukraine, by providing a migration context, influencing their work ethics and making them particularly sensitive to the ideas of responsibility and journalistic subjectivity.

 

The article can be accessed here.

New paper: Friendship in a ‘Russian bar’ in London: An ethnography of a young Russian-speaking migrant community

Friendship is increasingly drawing attention as a concept used to explain the variety of ways in which migrants develop and sustain local and transnational relations. The advantage of this approach is its focus on social capital and those ‘sustaining and inspirational aspects’ of friendship that contribute to shaping different aspects of mobile individuals’ lives (Conradson and Latham, 2005: 301), instead of interpreting migrant sociality and urban conviviality in super-diverse conditions in terms of ethnic communities. At the same time, the focus on friendship suggests the contingent and nuanced character of these close social ties. Drawing upon an ethnographic case study of a group of young Russian-speaking migrants from post-Soviet countries and their social relationships in a London bar, this article explores the role of friendship in a migrant group located within a particular physical and social space. The place served as an important social junction, and its Russian-speaking network of bartenders and regulars was a source of friendly support and empowerment for its members, helping them confront feelings of marginality. However, close and intimate ties were also at times connected with power relations, reflecting social divisions and the reinforcement of ethnic/national stereotypes regarding those excluded from this social network. This article highlights that friendship encompasses a diverse and dynamic range of inclusionary and exclusionary practices, and discusses how migrant sociality can be negotiated through these practices.

 

The paper can be accessed here.

New article: Ethical Concerns in Activist Ethnography: the Case of Ukrainian Protest Activism in London and a Russian Female Researcher

This paper aims to discuss some of the ethical quandaries
that arise in the process of qualitative research on social protest, and
explores the challenges posed by negotiating the engaged researcher’s
national/ethnic origin and gender in the course of fieldwork. It focuses
on an ethnographic study of Ukrainian protest activism in London
during the Euromaidan and Russia’s intervention in East Ukraine,
conducted by a female Russian researcher in 2013–2014.
While fieldwork created challenges for the ethnographer, both
as a Russian national participating in Ukrainian protests against
Russia’s military aggression, and as a female subject to some sexist
treatment from male activists, it reflected the multifaceted nature of
the researcher’s positionality and shifting power relations in the field.
These experiences linked to broader questions, such as the
complicated relationship between Russian and Ukrainian identities
that has been existing in Ukraine’s history and has become tenser in
the current conflict, and problematic gender issues connected with
women’s participation in Ukrainian activism. “Taking sides” as a
researcher provided insights into and personal experience of the
problems and tensions associated with the movement. Provided that
some distance is kept from the participants in the course of political
protest ethnography, and critical reflection is employed at all stages,
engaged research is a valid and valuable approach to accessing rich
ethnographic material.

 

The article can be downloaded here.

This is one of the contributions to the special issue of the Journal of Soviet and Post-Soviet
Politics and Society (Vol. 2, No.1, 2016): Gender, Nationalism, and Citizenship in Anti-Authoritarian Protests in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine

A new book: Migrant Friendships in a Super-Diverse City

ibidem-Verlag published my book titled Migrant Friendships in a Super-Diverse City: Russian-Speakers and their Social Relationships in London in the 21st Century in October 2015.

Description

This timely book offers an integrative and critical approach to the conceptualization of diversity of social ties in contemporary urban migrant populations. It explores the informal relationships of migrants in London and how the construction and the dynamics of their social ties function as a part of urban sociality within the super-diversity of London.Based on the results of a qualitative study of Russian-speaking migrants, it targets the four main themes of transnationalism, ethnicity, cosmopolitanization, and friendship. Acknowledging the complexity of the ways in which contemporary migrants rely on social relationships, the author argues that this complexity cannot be fully grasped by theories of transnationalism or explanations of ethnic communities alone. Instead, one can gather a closer understanding of migrant sociality when adding the analysis of informal relationships in different locations and with different subjects. This book suggests that friendship should be seen as an important concept for all research on migrant social connections.

Contents

Foreword by Claire Dwyer
Introduction  
Chapter 1. Limits of transnationalism 
London: a super-diverse city
Russian-speaking migrants in London
Transnationalism: introducing a popular concept in migration studies
Who is a transmigrant?
Critique of transnationalism
Conclusions
Chapter 2. Ethnicity and social relationships 
Ethnicity and migration
Social relationships amongst migrants
The nature of friendship
(post) Soviet friendship
Conclusions
Chapter 3. Localising friends    
‘It just happens’
Looking for Russian-speakers
Expanding networks
Transnational friendships?
Conclusions
Chapter 4. Choosing friends  
Degrees of closeness
Constructing distances among Russian-speakers in the bar
Divisions within the community
Affective distancing
Conclusions
Chapter 5. Rethinking friends    
Becoming cosmopolitan
Everyday diversity
Dynamics of change
Social contexts of cosmopolitanisation
‘Us’ and ‘Them’: questioning the dichotomy
Ambiguous images of ‘otherness’
Conclusions
Conclusion  

Reviews

“Drawing on a range of innovative research methods, Migrant Friendships in a Super-Diverse City presents an original and empirically compelling picture of the Russian-speaking diaspora in London. This book is a must for European migration scholars.” — Alan Latham, University College London

You can buy the book from the publisher, Columbia University Press website, on Amazon (UK/US/Germany/France/Canada) or other vendors.

Dismantling East European-ness Onstage

Community theatre group Molodyi teatr questions and deconstructs what it means to be an East European migrant in London.


Photo credit: Sasha Taran
Photo credit: Sasha Taran

The  Migrants

I just joined the theatre group Molodyi teatr a few weeks ago. The troupe is made up of about a dozen East European migrants, mostly Ukrainians and a couple of Russians, including myself. We’re rehearsing a short piece to be performed in commemoration of Holodomor, the man-made famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in 1932-33.  The text is drawn from interviews with Holodomor survivors, who narrate their stories of practical survival and death in a chillingly mundane manner.

At one of the final rehearsals, a cast member, a Russian-speaking girl who is not Ukrainian, raises her hand in the middle of the reading. Looking uneasy she asks the show’s director, Olesya Khromeychuk, ‘What is this about?’ After a few moments of awkward silence, the rest of the cast begins to laugh somewhat hysterically. In a few simple sentences, Olesya explains to her the history and significance of one of the most traumatic events in twentieth-century Ukrainian history.

This is one of my first memories of joining Molodyi teatr at the end of 2013. It was, of course, before the start of Euromaidan and the related events that triggered the popularity of Ukraine-related topics in the media and public discourse. This cast member’s question was, in part, indicative of widespread historical ignorance and the poor quality of education in some former Soviet republics. However, her question also speaks to a lack of understanding and curiosity between and among disparate (but also interconnected) groups of post-Soviet migrants in twenty-first-century London.

Since the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s intervention in the East of Ukraine, relationships between Ukrainians and Russians in London have soured. Friends have fallen out. Clashes have broken out between Ukrainians staging protests on the street and Russian passersby, at public events and on social media. This doesn’t mean, however, that the war in Ukraine has coalesced Ukrainians and Russians into two opposing communities with clearly demarcated boundaries.

Rallying Ukrainians in London have sometimes found themselves in heated debate on the street with someone who turns out to be from East Ukraine themselves. Quarrels with compatriots – friends and relatives – have now become commonplace. While the conflict has created new fault lines and deepened old divisions in relationships between members of global post-Soviet migrant communities, the patterns of these shifting relationships are subtle and cannot be viewed in black-and-white.

The Play

This is among the central ideas behind Molodyi teatr’s first English-language production ‘Bloody East Europeans’. The play was written by Uilleam Blacker, a lecturer in comparative Russian and East European Studies at University College London, and directed by Olesya Khromeychuk, a historian at the University of East Anglia and the driving force behind the theatre group. ‘Bloody East Europeans’ is based on real life accounts of migrants from different East European countries living in London.

The stories are woven into a simple plot. Elements of comedy and drama work to introduce diverse (and mainly marginalised) migrant characters gathered in a bar that gets raided by immigration officers in the second half of the play. In all its simplicity, the play presents a series of vignettes in anecdotal fashion that not only lend the production ethnographic qualities, but also make it, effectively, a theatrical meta-piece: a play by migrants, about migrants.

The stories in the play are brought together to argue against lumping ‘East Europeans’ into one unified or homogenous group. It successfully deconstructs common notions of ‘East European-ness’ through complex accounts of relationships unfolding between the characters on the stage. Most of the time this involves stressing the fact that ‘we’re not all Russian’, or giving the audience a glimpse into the linguistic diversity of the region, or explaining why Ukrainians and Poles may have something against one another.

The play also includes contentious moments, in which such differences and points of tension are themselves performed. For example, at the start of the piece the actors onstage begin introducing the audience to various words and names of cities in Eastern Europe. When one character says, ‘Simferopol!’, a city in Russia-annexed Crimea, another steps forward and adds ‘Nash!’ (‘Ours’ in Russian and Ukrainian) – a clear allusion to the infamous post-annexation Russian slogan ‘Krym nash!’ (‘Crimea is ours!’).

When we performed this segment in London in summer 2015, the tension in the room was palpable. The audience was almost all East European, and mostly Ukrainian. After the show, the actor who played the latter character was worried about the negative reception of these lines. ‘I heard noises. People were definitely not happy about me saying this’, the actor said.

The Theatre

Since the beginning, Molodyi teatr has focused on Ukrainian culture, but the company is not bent on tradition. It is not ethnicity or migrant background that brings its members together. It is, rather, a multilingual space for informal communication about notions of culture in a broad sense. In other words, the group provides a space for the formation of a social network. The members of the troupe are connected through contextual and flexible informal ties of friendship and companionship.

This is not to say that their relationships are always positive and constructive, though: occasionally, there can be tension, anger, and irritation. Just as in any community, there can be frustration and dissatisfaction. There might be boredom. The theatre is an emotional space, after all.

While some of the members say that they joined the theatre because the lives of so many of their compatriots in London seemed too boring and monotonous, the theatre is neither a means of escaping hardships and routine, nor an informal support group. As a community and a participatory space, the theatre offers its members a chance to express their agency. In the case of ‘Bloody East Europeans’, the play allows its participants to speak for themselves and on behalf of other East European migrants in London. The play gives voice to those who are often marginalised, victimised, and stereotyped – undocumented migrants.

By doing so, Molodyi Teatr endeavors to deconstruct not only notions of ‘East-European-ness’, but also the category of ‘illegality’. As one anonymous spectator told the theatre, ‘My life of the last eight years is exactly what you showed in your play’. These kinds of comments from audience members testify to the representational quality of the project in that they come from the groups and individuals who were the initial source of ‘data’ used for the play. Performing for more diverse audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival was an important step in terms of moving past the image of ‘diasporic theatre’ and gaining voice on a broader scale.

As ‘Bloody East Europeans’ illustrates through its use of satire, music, and real-life stories, in London there is no single community of East Europeans, post-Soviets, Russian-speakers, Ukrainians, or Russians for that matter. Social relationships among migrants are complex and contingent not only upon historical and political background, but also a variety of personal and structural factors, local contexts such as spaces that they are (co-)inhabiting, and practical qualities of particular relationships.

As London becomes increasingly diverse and questions around migration dominate the press, we can only hope that Molodyi teatr will continue its work as a performative social space empowering both actors and audiences to consider the complexities of London’s social life.

The musical-satire ‘Bloody East Europeans’ by ‘Molodyi teatr’ (Young Theatre) will be featured in the month-long documentary theatre programme at GRAD gallery in London on 9 October. The play is one of three documentary plays included in the series on themes of migration and social inequality in Bulgaria, Russia and the UK. For the complete theatre programme click here.


This article first appeared at: http://politicalcritique.org/culture/2015/dismantling-east-european-ness-onstage/


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